August 9, 2010

Picking a hair dye.

If you have ever bought a hair dye, particularly in a supermarket, you probably noticed the result wasn't matching the picture on the box exactly. That lead many a women to hair disaster - a colleague of mine once hated the blonde she had just done and thought she would correct it with a bit of chestnut, which resulted in an ashy blonde with green reflects. That she had to cover with black, which kind of defeated the initial purpose.

Although I never dared to experiment myself with those infamous boxes until a year ago, I went through a few disasters myself for the simple reason that pros don't speak the same language as you do. Ask them for a light brown and you'll end up dark chocolate because what you called a light brown, they refer to as medium blonde.
Which is why I ended up learning to speak the colorist language: now I get what I want, and I can buy a dye knowing what the result will be no matter what picture is on the box.

1. Level.
The first thing you need to pick when you're going to dye your hair is the color level, that is, its lightness or depth. That's where most misundestandings happen. The ladder goes from 1 to 10, with 1 being the darkest (black) and 10 the lightest (lightest blonde).

The color I'm currently using, which you can see in my latest FOTD posts, is a level 7. Yes, I know, it doesn't look blonde, you have to take into account that the lightest your hair, the more intense the color is going to appear. I used level 5 last Winter (see here) and on me it looked as dark as a level 3-2 on the picture above.
In doubt, always go for a lighter level because going darker afterwards is always possible while going lighter is always tricky.
By the way, going more than one level lighter than your own at home with do it yourself products is always tricky, generally not recommended, and done at your own risk. You will need to bleach your hair first and that's a part that is better left to professionals.

2. Tones. (edited with the help of my friend Chloe, hairstylist)
One level of color can have a lot of appearances, depending on the tone you are going to pick. Tones are the hues of the hair color, and they can be either natural or artificial (think purple). You can be dark blonde with golden reflects or with red reflects, and the result will be totally different although the level is the same.
There are 7 tones that can be mixed to achieve any color you want:

  1. Blue Ash
  2. Mauve Ash (Violet, also known as iridescent, especially when used as a secondary tone)
  3. Gold
  4. Copper
  5. Mahogany
  6. Red
  7. Green Ash (sometimes known as metallic)
Like the colour wheel, opposites cancel each other out, Mahogany would sit between copper and red.

The mixes are done using the good old color theory. I'm usually using a 7.23 (medium blonde, iridescent with a bit of gold) but for Summer I switched to a 7.32 wich means I now have more of a golden, slightly iridescent tone and that means when my color is fading away I'll be more golden than usual (since there's less Ash to counteract the blonde base). This is also why my colleague got green reflects: she shouldn't have used a color with Ash in it on top of her previous color, as the mix turned green.
: If the hair has a lot of grey (or a few strands of the coarse wiry kind that poke out), you wouldn't just use the colour with tones (eg, 7.32 or 6.45) as you wouldn't get coverage. You'd add a flat base of the same depth.

I know, I know, it doesn't sound super easy, and I'm not always sure how to make the right choices myself. However, I know I don't like when my color fades leaving me with reddish reflects, so I obviously avoid any dye that has Red or Orange in it. And if you buy your hair dye from a supply store like I do (I use L'Oreal Professional products, most often the Richess range), the store staff will be able to help you.
Important: the numbers explained here are supposed to be a universal numbering system, and it is used for all professional products. However, some drugstore products use different numbers or refer to a level number with a different name.
3. Picking a developer.
You will need a developer to mix with your dye so it creates the oxydation process. There are different concentrations in developers and the rules are quite simple here:

Cream Developer% O2Colouring Result
Cream Developer2.1 % (7 vol.)Intense Dye
Cream Developer3 % (10 vol.)Grey hair coverage
tone on tone and darker shades
Cream Developer6 % (20 vol.)Grey hair coverage
Lift 1 to 2 tones
Cream Developer9 % (30 vol.)Grey hair coverage
Lift 1 to 2 tones
Cream Developer12 % (40 vol.)Grey hair coverage
Lift 4 tones and more

For tints, you generally use the 10 volume (the semi/quasi permanent) or 20 volume (permanent). (I do use a 10 in general). Occasionally you use 30 volume, for brighter colours but usually 30 and 40 volume are reserved for prelightening.

When you buy drugstore boxed dyes, you will typically have the right developer in the kit, in the right amount. Otherwise, instructions will be provided with the dye - I typically use 1 measure of dye with 1.5 measures of developer.

4. Testing.
Before using a new hair dye, you need to make sure you're not going to have any kind of reaction to it, even more if you never used hair dye before. The procedure is very simple, and this is a process I copied from the Herbatint website:

A skin test is quick and simple to carry out. A small amount of tint and developer (the size of a pea) are mixed and dabbed behind the ear or elbow using cotton wool. Ensure you immediately seal the bottles after pouring your pea sized measures. The test should remain 48 hours, initially it is common to feel tingling or slight irritation from the tint and the skin may redden subtly. However, these sensations should disappear within a maximum of 60 minutes. If, once applied the test causes severe burning, itching and or begins to inflame rinse the skin immediately with cool water. In addition, if the skin is still reacting after several hours and appears patchy, a reaction has happened. People may initially find the skin shows no response to the tint. However 12 hours after initial application it may suddenly become inflamed and swollen. In this case you are very likely to be allergic to tint, and a scalp application must not be carried out.
Another test you might want to make is using the dye on a small patch of hair (on your neck, for example) to see how the color turns out before proceeding with the whole hair.

5. Application.
A video will be more effective than a thousand words, and this is the one I learned from - using this technique I got things perfect from the first time I dyed my hair at home!
Hope you found it all helpful! And Thanks again Chloe for your help :)


  1. I swear to you that next time we met I'll let you pick a dye for me. Maybe I will end up looking better than my current dark brown with red hues hair ^^

  2. No problem, I'll do my best to help ;-)


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